Review: The Jezebel Effect

[CN: Self-Harm, Disablism]

The Jezebel Effect: Why the Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still MattersThe Jezebel Effect: Why the Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters
by Kyra Cornelius Kramer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Jezebel Effect / 9781508666110

I feel guilty not finishing this book, because this is exactly the kind of book that I've been wishing for years that someone would write. I love popular history books about women: I've read pretty much everything Alison Weir has ever written, I've read about Marie Antoinette and Cleopatra and Hatchepsut, I've read Eleanor Herman's Sex with the Queen. I've read all these books about the lives of famous and powerful women, and I've been struck by how much slut-shaming these women have been subjected to. Anne Boleyn is, of course, one of the best examples: it seems almost unthinkable to me that she was cheating on Henry, but of course that was what she was charged with and people still make that case--and much of the time, it seems that the case for her supposed sexual shenanigans is based not on actual *facts* but simply that many of us don't like her. So I have been waiting for a book that comes forward and ties all this together, something that points out that the sexual shaming of powerful women is a thread that runs through our social history.

"The Jezebel Effect" starts strong, and I think the introduction may well be its strongest part. Kramer points out politicians of our time period who are routinely slut-shamed despite the fact that the criticisms against them have *nothing* to do with sexual escapades. All of this will be familiar to feminists who follow politics, and will probably do little to convince the hardliners, but might reach some of the middle-grounders who may be overwhelmed (as well they ought to be) by the sheer amount of slut-shaming that Kramer compiles. It's only when we leave the introduction that things start falling apart a little.

For one thing, this feels like a very long book. I see that the paperback is 412 pages; I had the Kindle version so I can't verify that, but the book feels very, very long. This is always a tricky spot with popular history books that try to provide lots of examples: do you spend one chapter per Person of Interest and end up missing much of the meat of your argument, or do you exhaustively document as much as you possibly can? Each person of interest spans multiple chapters, and it's frustrating (as you can see in the book preview) that none of the chapters are labeled: chapter one would more rightly be called "Introduction"; chapters 2-5 are about Jezebel (except that chapter 5 is also about social media suicides); chapters 6-10 are about Cleopatra; chapters 11-16 are Anne Boleyn; chapters 17-19 are Katherine Howard (and given that she is the Tudor wife with the least well-documented history, much of this feels padded and speculative); chapters 20-23 are Catherine the Great; and chapters 24, 25, and 26 wrap up some thoughts.

The lack of labels makes it difficult to skip over pieces the reader may care less about; there's definitely a point midway through chapter 4 where I felt like "ooookaaaay, we've made the case about Jezebel, can we move on please?" and then chapter 5 suddenly throws itself rather unexpectedly from Jezebel into harassment on modern social media (Facebook, Twitter) and deals with the suicides of several girls who were harassed. The effect feels jarring, unfocused, and poorly edited. This impression isn't helped by the sometimes "chatty" feel of the writing, which would make sense in a blog format but here just feels padded and too much. Quotes like "Since he was the preeminent scholar on this topic, I'm willing to believe him" (in referenced to a quoted source), or "I suspect Anne [Boleyn] got her famous charisma from her dad" feel out of place to me in a work that is trying to be scholarly and serious. There are asides like "This is slightly off topic..." that go on extensively about Julius Caesar's sexual proclivities, and it just feels disorganized. I kept wishing an editor had tightened the book up.

The other main problem that stood out at me is the scholarship itself. This is going to be a huge problem in *any* book that tries to cover multiple cultures and time periods. People devote years of their lives on the Tudors alone (and many of them don't agree on lots of the details), so any compilation album like this is going to struggle to keep up. That's part of the reason why compilation pieces like "Sex with the Queen" stick to shallow single-chapters rather than epic 3-4 chapters per person, because once you get into that level of detail, you're probably going to put your foot in. One thing that stood out in chapter 1 was when Kramer stated that Mary I "usurped the throne from the lawful queen, Jane Grey"; the idea that Jane Grey was the legal heir is a theory I have never been exposed to before, and I've read Tudor history for years. (It's strongly arguable that Jane Grey herself didn't think her reign was lawful!) Little details like these, which are sometimes not-cited and can feel jarringly-wrong seem to distract from the larger feminist points; the reader isn't thinking "yeah, it's noteworthy that for various reasons Mary I wasn't slut-shamed despite being far worse than other queens" but rather is going to be distracted by "wait, no, English legal history is complicated and I'm pretty sure that's a blatant over-simplification."

Later Anne Boleyn chapters go off on a tangent about Henry's cruelty being "medically" driven. I note here that the author has written a book on this topic ("Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation of the Tyranny of Henry VIII"). I don't really want to get into that theory deeply here, except that it strikes me as odd that a feminist book about how men slut-shame and kill women would have a divergent note trying to find a "medical "explanation" for why a man would slut-shame and kill a woman. The fishing-for-a-reason feels especially odd when placed side-by-side with discussion from Kramer about "honor killings", as if white men need to be disabled or broken in order to do things that men of color sometimes do. And again, this could just be my own Weir fanishness popping up, but I just don't think Henry needs a "medical explanation" for his bad behavior. To give Kramer her due, she does make a good point about how we call it "domestic violence" when American men kill women, but "honor killings" when South Asian and Middle Eastern men kill women, but all this dovetails badly (imo) with trying to medically justify Henry's behavior, and ties into a thread of disablism that made me uncomfortable as a reader. (Chapter 1 states that "Isabella I even paved the way for the Spanish Inquisition, which only lunatics think was a good idea," which I find an incredibly poor choice of words.)

Flaws of organization, writing style, and historical details aside, I do think this is a good book with good ideas. Kramer makes excellent points about how the wooing of Anne Boleyn has been framed (both at the time and to present day), explaining how easy it is to call a woman grasping and ambitious when she is in a situation with limited choices and where her "no, I said no" is not being accepted. Whether you agree on a personal level with this interpretation of Anne Boleyn or not, I think it is valuable for someone to make the point that we socially see a woman's "no" as conniving for a better bargaining position. The fact that we think that way at all is a problem that we need to address.

I do tentatively recommend this book. It is a sprawling epic with a lot of flaws, but *any* such epic look at trying to tie together the slut-shaming of half a dozen queens would have had many of these same flaws; I view the flaws as inevitable considering the scope of the material. I do wish that an editor had been employed to strike out the more "bloggy" conversational style at times, I wish there was better organization of the material, I wish the chapters had been labeled, I wish the huge block-quotes of sources had been trimmed down and paraphrased (the Cleopatra chapters are particularly egregious of this, quoting Plutarch in bulk), I wish the minor-and-sometimes-debatable historical details had been vetted better or in some cases left out as immaterial distractions to the main point, I wish that the author had a stronger background in avoiding disablist language and themes (like seeking "medical explanations" for cruelty, as if sane and healthy men are not cruel to women all the time). But I do admire the intent behind the work and the point being made here. For the Kindle price, it's a steal and I recommend picking it up, and I wish the author all the best in her future efforts.

~ Ana Mardoll


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